Live too long and all your heroes will retire.
Pretty much every sports fan knows that this saying eventually comes true, because athletes are human and knees give out and every career eventually comes to an end. I’ve seen some of my favorite players retire — Heather O’Reilly, Tony Gonzalez, Peyton Manning. It’s bittersweet, but you know it’s coming.
And yet, when Adrian Wojnarowski announced on Monday night that long-time superstar writer Lee Jenkins would be leaving Sports Illustrated to work in the front office of the Los Angeles Clippers, I was stunned.
I was partly confused because — I don’t know, because it didn’t make sense? As much as I respect Jenkins for his ability to interview athletes and craft a lede, I don’t see what he brings to the front office of any NBA team. What are the Clippers thinking? I’m fairly convinced Jenkins pulled off the greatest heist of all time, and I can’t begrudge him for it.
But mostly, I was sad. Every young writer is raised on the work of the greats. When their columns and features are released, we cancel our plans and hunker down to read them. For any young writer desperate to get better, these people are our greatest teachers. We don’t just read their articles for fun. We rehash, we obsess, we dig through archives of their work to learn.
That was Lee Jenkins for me. He was a tutor, a constant guide. Of course, he didn’t know this — I spoke to him in person a grand total of once, when he came to one of my classes last fall. (I was so excited when he walked in that I almost started crying.) But every time Jenkins wrote a profile, I was there, ready to rehash it all and figure out how the hell he wrote so well.
As an intern at Sports Illustrated over the summer, I took full advantage of the publication’s archives database to scroll back through Jenkins’ body of work and reread each of his stories. There was always something to learn, something to gain in a Lee Jenkins piece. How to interview, how to select quotes, how to craft a transition or build to a conclusion. Each feature was a master class in the art of writing.
Most importantly, however, Jenkins knew the key to great writing — how to make the reader feel something. His pieces made the reader feel as if they were there, in the hospital room with Chris Bosh, in the locker room with Kevin Durant. And he broke down pro athletes like nobody else, removing the statistics and the sponsorships to reveal the human underneath, and somehow coaxing that human to be vulnerable, at least for the length of his story.
I want to write like Lee Jenkins. That’s not a bold statement in any terms, because every sports writer wants to write like him. So it’s a strange thing to mourn, perhaps, but it’s hard to face the fact that this teacher, who guided the way I wanted to write for so much of my life, is leaving us for good.
If I had known his last article was, in fact, his last, I probably would’ve savored it a little bit more. Instead, we’re now left with an expansive backlog of his greatest hits. It’s not the worst thing, for sure; but there’s just a little less to look forward to when my copy of Sports Illustrated arrives every Thursday.
Jenkins’ departure also leaves a hole in the world of sports writing. That hole feels approximately the same size as the one that Rick Reilly left when he retired (and then unretired again, only to write kind of badly, which was somehow worse than when he retired in the first place).
Despite what movies like “Set It Up” might lead you to believe, there isn’t really such a thing as a “superstar” journalist, at least not in the written media. It’s rare to see a person become a mogul through their writing. While Peter King or Bill Simmons pulled this off by establishing their brands, it’s even more rare to see someone like Jenkins, who exists on a higher plane of sports writing simply through the power of his words.
This is the writer who LeBron James hand-selected to announce his return home to Cleveland. The amount of respect that Jenkins commands is incomparable; he could enter the life of any NBA superstar and make himself completely at home. Over his career, Jenkins perfected the “art of hanging out,” the most vital skill for any journalist. Now, he’s as much a part of the NBA as any of the star athletes he wrote about.
Who will follow in his stead? There’s certainly a wealth of great sportswriters in this world, but there’s no one quite like Jenkins. It’s hard to say who will rise up to this level after him, and how they will do it. But if anything, this change makes me excited to see who will come next.
On Tuesday, I asked my sportswriting professor what he thought about Jenkins’ move, and his response surprised me. He wasn’t upset or sad; just happy that Jenkins had found a new avenue to pursue.
He told me that it’s hard to grow old as a sportswriter. The job stops being fun, the shine of the athletes wear off, the words come less easily. For Jenkins, maybe it’s best to go out on top.
For many of us this feels like a loss, but for Jenkins it’s just the next step. All we can do is be grateful, and spend way too much time reading those old features — and say thank you, for inspiring an entire generation of writers like me.
Julia Poe is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.